A group of dedicated journalists and travel professionals gathered in midtown Manhattan last week to discuss the future of travel to Europe. Despite the grim economic forecast, the mood at the European Travel Commission Conference was full of hope and optimism, with a wide range of speakers offering suggestions for improving a beleaguered industry.
The Conference ended with a beautifully emotional speech by Arthur Frommer, who taught people how to travel through Europe on less than $5 per day more than 50 years ago. Calling luxury travel a “small sliver” of American travel to Europe, he called for American tourists to economize and be creative in their journeys. For example, by limiting his budget to $5 per day back in 1957, he was forced to dine with the hoi polloi of each destination in local eateries rather than in gourmet restaurants. The experience, he said, was much more authentic than what he would have enjoyed on an expensive, formal tour.
Before Frommer spoke, however, numerous other industry professionals shared their expertise and opinions with the enthusiastic crowd.
“When the U.S. sneezes, the world catches cold,” said the New York Times’ Liz Alderman, adding that the world now seems to have economic pneumonia. The European Union is facing a recession, she said, but many nations want to work together to “forge a path of renewal.” The election of President Obama, she added, is bringing optimism to the global landscape.
Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth) shared some statistics from a recent study by Spectrem Group, the Chicago-based wealth-research firm. According to Frank’s blog:
Households with a net worth of $1 million or more say their assets have declined 30 percent or more. Nearly one-fifth of millionaires have experienced declines of more than 40 percent.
Nearly all the millionaires surveyed (90 percent) fear a prolonged economic downturn. Altogether, they believe it will last for another 22 months, and more than half (55 percent) are concerned they will not have sufficient assets to maintain their present lifestyles.
For travel, then, Frank said, “people want experiences for their value.”
Chris Sanderson of FutureLab pointed out that many cities have survived crises that affected their tourism prospects (such as the SARS scare from several years back). So while immediate prospects may seem bleak, there is hope. When money becomes tight, he said, “travel becomes about the things money cannot buy…Travelers want a journey that tells a story.” To that end, Europe is expanding its luxury offerings, such as increasing the number of high-speed trains that spare travelers the hassle of short-haul flights, and even designing airships not unlike the zeppelins of old.
Gail Grimmett of Delta Air Lines suggested cooperation and partnerships to weather the storm—after all, as she pointed out, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary general of the UN World Tourism Organization, pointed out that tourism creates 10 percent of the world’s economy—and five percent of its greenhouse gas. He called for a “green revolution” like author Thomas L. Friedman suggests in his book "Hot, Flat and Crowded," and said that travelers will stop caring about conspicuous consumption and become more focused on sustainability.
After Arthur Frommer's speech, he was presented with the first lifetime achievement award from the European Travel Commission in recognition of his decades of work to bring everyone—not only the wealthy—over to Europe. If the industry is to survive this crisis, Frommer’s Everyman style of travel is a beacon for European hosts and Americans eager to cross the Atlantic.